The task set before Rhino's team of compilers for The Brit Box: UK Indie, Shoegaze, and Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millennium, to cull four discs of the best tracks from the period, was no doubt a daunting one. While this glut of history-changing music was being produced over the roughly 15 years explored herein, British music went through countless changes stylistically and technologically. What's constant through it all, though, is the bands' distinct artistic determinism: They perfectly balanced their intentionally literate and sensuous approach to songwriting and sound-making with a vibe that was poppy enough to not take itself too seriously.
These aren't silly songs, by any means. Rather, these songs could alternately go down easy with a Valium on a rainy London night or a pint of lager on a leisurely summer day; they were as comfortable at the top of pop charts as they were on the hi-fis of young intellectuals. Some of these songs rock hard, others soft, but even when they're strung over a Paul Oakenfold beat (in the instance of Happy Mondays' "Step On"), these 78 tracks still manage to rock-one way or another.
Starting in the mid-'80s, The Brit Box's first of four discs examines the period when The Smiths and Echo & The Bunnymen ruled Top of the Pops-long before The La's sleeper hit "There She Goes" found itself in the hands of teen-movie producers. The disc ends around 1990, when the Mondays, Primal Scream ("Loaded"), and The Stone Roses ("She Bangs the Drum") began revisiting psychedelic rock sounds while playing alongside acid-house DJs at the U.K.'s first raves-a sure sign of the progressive changes that the underground scene was to undergo.
Disc Two highlights those changes, when guitar rockers began to take more experimental, electronic chances. Without entirely eschewing pop elements, studio geniuses like My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields and producer/engineer Alan Moulder emerged and produced some of indie rock's finest songs ever-Moulder having worked on tracks here by Ride ("Vapour Trails"), Lush ("For Love") Curve ("Coast is Clear"), Swervedriver ("Duel"), and MBV ("Only Shallow")-bringing about the at-the-time epithetic "shoegaze" term. There's no Slowdive track in The Brit Box, but that's about the only thing missing from this otherwise perfect disc.
Likely the biggest pop explosion the country had seen since Beatlemania, the Brit-pop era of the mid-to-late '90s saw indie bands filling Wembley Arena and pitting music fans against one another at the Virgin Megastore counter. Suede's icy-cool "Metal Mickey" kicks off Disc Three and bounces along through super-poppy gems like James' "Laid," Supergrass' "Alright," and Pulp's "Common People," while visiting Brit-pop's rockier side, too, including Oasis' genre-defining "Live Forever" and Elastica's "Stutter."
Disc Four documents that breaking point when the Brit-pop scene got saturated with shaggy-haired kids moving to London, starting bands, and attempting (sometimes successfully) to ride their forebears' coattails. Ash's "Girl From Mars" and Cornershop's U.S.-radio hit "Brimful of Asha" are about the most passable of the lot, leaving in their wake also-rans like Rialto, Gay Dad, and Catatonia to round out the package (Spiritualized and The Verve notwithstanding, who, by that time, were operating more or less outside of the larger pack of rock brats).
Each disc here has its period's requisite rockers, thinkers, dance-partiers, and stoners. Yet despite their decidedly indie, leftist leanings, they all comprised British rock's center, a solid starting point from which an obscure, even-more-indie scene grew and flourished. Whether it's the savvy, post-goth, post-New Wave lead-up to Brit-pop, or its flabby, trend-minded trail-off at the turn of the millennium, The Brit Box presents the best of pre-2000 U.K. indie rock in all its glory.